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Gifts of Love

It is an awkward moment when you first tell someone that you love them. To make the process easier, humans have developed a wide array of tokens, which, when given as gifts, symbolise loving feelings. These love tokens have changed and evolved over centuries, and they continue to evolve today.

Saying “I love you” is never an easy thing. Declarations of love are like walking naked onto a stage before a packed auditorium: you hope for appreciative murmurings followed by rapturous applause, but you utterly dread an embarrassed silence or, even worse, stifled sniggering. To say “I love you” is a brave act of self-exposure, so it is no surprise that humans have invented ways to minimise that trauma by using tokens to symbolise love. The token becomes a proxy for the timorous lover and over centuries those tokens have come in a variety of forms.

Ring, ring

The ring as a symbol of marriage is perhaps the most widespread token of love and commitment. The use of the ring dates back 5000 years to the ancient Egyptians who worshipped the shape as a representation of the sun and moon, but also of eternity since the ring has no beginning and no end. The early Egyptians regularly made circular bracelets and finger rings for themselves from the sedges, rushes and reeds that grew along the banks of the Nile. It was not a huge leap for these symbols of eternity to soon be given as tokens of never-ending love.

The ring as a token of love was placed on the third finger of the left hand (remember the thumb is not a finger) because it was believed by the Egyptians that a vein ran directly from the heart to this finger. The Greeks adopted this belief after they had conquered Egypt through Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. The Romans in turn adopted the Greek belief and dubbed the vein “vena amoris” (the vein of love).

The problem with a ring made of reeds was that it had a built-in obsolescence and would wear away after a year or so. This somewhat undercut the eternal nature of the symbol so there was a move toward more lasting materials such as leather, bone and ivory. Once the Egyptians had mastered metallurgy, they moved onto metals. The Romans favoured iron rings and by medieval times, the typical metal used for a ring was gold. The problem with early rings was that they were often roughly made and to make up for their cumbersome look, gemstones were added. Ruby and sapphires were popular but by far the most
popular stone to add to a ring from medieval times through to the present has been the diamond.

Better than a kiss

Diamonds have a spectacular clarity of appearance that matches the supposed purity of the love of the giver. They are also the hardest known mineral substance on Earth, at least four times harder than the second-hardest mineral, corundum, from which rubies and sapphires are made. This means, with constant use and wear, diamonds will endure without blemish (again like the love that they symbolise) where other stones will chip and crack.

Since the Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave a diamond ring to his fiancée in the late 1400s, diamond rings have become the brightest of love’s ambassadors. At the other end of the glitteringspectrum comes a no less ardent representation of love: the spoon.

Spoons full of loving

The tradition of carving and giving love spoons is centuries old and is at its most prominent in Wales. The oldest-surviving love spoon dates to 1667 but the custom of spoon giving goes back centuries earlier. For centuries, the people who lived in the remote and isolated villages and farmsteads of Wales created everything they needed in life from materials around them. From the forests, which clothed the hills and filled the valleys, they carved household objects needed for daily life: plates, bowls, spoons.

During the long winter nights, families isolated in their crofts would gather around the fire for warmth and light. As they sang the old songs and listened to the stories of ancient days, the men would patiently carve spoons, teasing a shape from the lifeless wood. A unique tool evolved to carve the spoons called the “twca cam” (the curved dagger), with a long handle and hooked blade.

As time went on, the designs on the spoons became more and more intricate. Some were double bowled, or two spoons linked with a wooden chain. The handles became longer and broader, carved with hearts and circles. The soft curves and rounded edges became beautiful in design but impractical for everyday use and were instead given as gifts and then as tokens of love.

The spoons became an invitation from a man to a woman to begin courting, and many believe that the English term of “spooning” derives from this Welsh tradition. Other Celtic groups have similar traditions, in particular the Bretons, who carved special “marriage spoons” for presentation to a couple on their wedding day. As many of the men who carved these spoons would have been illiterate, the love spoons with their intricate designs carried an unwritten message to the women they loved.

The language of flowers

Flowers have come into the arena of love in a similar way to spoons, allowing inarticulate or illiterate men and women to express their desires and intentions. In Roman times, brides would wear coronets of orange blossom and myrtle to symbolise a combination of virginal innocence blended with abundance (as in, many children). By Elizabethan times, in England flowers were used to encode highly personal messages to prospective loved ones. So established was the language of flowers at this time that each flower given as a gift carried a very set meaning. To name a few:
• Lavender — silence and a returned love.
• Pansies — an invitation to courtship.
• Roses — red rose symbolised pure love, musk rose
stood for beauty and white rose for silence.
• Tulips — a declaration of love.

By Victorian times, the language of flowers had become a well-established code. For instance, in Norfolk, a young man who wore the herb southernwood in his buttonhole was announcing to the world that he was ready and available to meet single women. If he met a group of girls and took a fancy to one of them, he might ostentatiously sniff his southernwood. If a girl in turn liked the look of the man, then she might inhale the aroma of the herb too. The couple could then, having declared their interest, take it to the next level and go for a stroll. It’s doubtful that such tactics would work in the darkened halls of modern-day nightclubs but feel free to give it a go.


In Britain during medieval times, until at least the late 16th century, it was customary for a man to bend a copper coin and give it to his sweetheart as a token of his love and intention of marriage. They were never spent and were always carried by the woman as a demonstration of her loyalty and a constant reminder to her each time she opened her purse. These coins were usually bowed or even cup shaped. The first settlers also took these customs to America and they survived into the 19th century.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, in both Britain and America coins were still used as love tokens but the manner of usage had changed. The poorer working classes usually made their love tokens from copper coins, whereas a wealthy man would use a silver or gold coin. To make the token, the coin was rubbed down, usually on both sides, until the details of the design, such as a monarch’s head, had been removed. The man then engraved or stamped his own pattern and wording onto the blank disc. The decorations included symbols of romance such as hearts pierced with arrows, Cupid’s bow and arrow, flowers or love birds. The most common feature, though, was a monogram of the lover’s initials, often with some message. Such desecration of the currency would be illegal today as it probably was then, but the effort and skill that went into the designs, much as with spoons, was an indication of the intensity and worthiness of a suitor’s love.


Chocolates have become one of the most widely used modern-day tokens of love. They hardly represent the time and skill that a well-honed spoon signifies but they do have their uses. Chocolate just happens to melt at the temperature of the human tongue and that liquid cascade of sweet stimulation across the taste buds certainly will enhance the mood of the object of one’s desire. In fact, chocolate contains mood-enhancing chemicals.

Emoticons of love

In the 21st century, like everything else, love tokens have gone digital. A simple “<3 u”, or one of many other emoticons available can symbolise your love. There is much debate as to what the “x” at the end of a text message symbolises. In some places on the internet, the theory is that one “x” indicates friendly connection but that increasing numbers of “xs” indicate increasing intensity, and availability, of feelings. That is just internet frippery, however, and there are no substantive studies to verify what an “x” or a “xxx” at the end of a message signifies. Of course, you can also send photos of yourself in any mode you see fit to your beloved as a token of love. Just beware, though, as many have found to their cost, unlike a wooden spoon that can be burned in a fire, your digital tokens of love once out there can never really be taken back.

Article featured in WellBeing 209

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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